iNEMI Project Develops Reuse and Recycling Metric to Assess Circular Economic Value of ICT Products
The iNEMI Reuse and Recycling Metrics project has developed a metric that assesses the end-of-life impacts of product design and material choices as well as the economic value of what can be recovered (from reuse or recycling). It also takes into account the recovery readiness in the regions of the world where products will be sold. Use of this metric enables manufacturers to make more informed decisions early in the development cycle.
The Phase 1 project on repair and recycling metrics reviewed existing recyclability and reusability metrics and found that the industry has limited means of practically assessing the circular economic value of information and communication technology (ICT) products. The commonly used mass-based metrics, in their most simplistic form, were determined to be deficient for providing a realistic estimate of the value of repair, refurbishment, reuse and recycling.
Phase 2 of the Reuse and Recycling Metrics project focused on developing a scoring system to measure the performance of the electronics value recovery (EVR) process. The resulting system assesses the economic feasibility and physical practicality of separating and liberating the materials from ICT products. This scoring system can help inform design choices, alert recovery agents, and facilitate the market in returning value.
What Are We Measuring?
We are measuring the ability of the system to return value back to the market. For electronic products, the system includes the product designers, the recovery agents and the return-to-market agents.
The mass-based recyclability metrics are by far the most commonly used by the electronics industry and easiest to calculate. However, these metrics generally ignore the reality of liberation, separation and recovery of the materials, and the economic realities of the recycling process in the region where the product ends its life. They do not include cost drivers or methodologies to determine whether a product or material will be recovered. Unfortunately, the potential for recycling does not mean a product or material will be recycled. There are also no metrics or guidance for reusability, reparability and refurbishability.
There are three major areas of impact: product design, the recovery process and return to market. The product designers select the materials and the assembly of those materials (i.e., form, fit, function). The recovery agents control the “how” and “if” of recovery by investments in capital (tools, processes, handling and safety equipment), labor (training, hiring) and choices made based on the profitability of recovering material from e-waste. The return-to-market agents create the paths to return recovered materials back into the worldwide market. A choice made at any point in the value chain is affected by the other two. In order to harvest as much value from an electronic product as possible while reducing waste to a minimum, all “actors” in the system must work together.
The project team divided product assessment into three tiers: material choice, ease of liberation and available recycling technology. Regional factors were researched and incorporated in the assessment criteria. Additionally, the team reviewed the hierarchy of recovery (repair and reuse, parts harvesting, material recovery, or energy recovery/landfill), which impacts the ease of returning value to the market.
Material choice is a critical factor that affects value recovery in electronic products. Having a metric that can provide immediate feedback on a specific material choice allows the product designer to focus attention on how to improve the product’s recyclability score (i.e., make better material choices).
In developing a recycling and reuse metric, the project team determined that the key feature of material choice can be suitably modeled by evaluating material efficiency. In a study by the European Commission (EC), product design was identified as key to achieving material efficiency and resource savings from recycling and waste prevention . From a recycling and reuse perspective, material choice has a direct impact on material efficiency, which then has a consequential impact on the value recovery of a product at end of life.
In developing a set of criteria for the material choice segment of a recycling and reuse metric, the iNEMI team chose the following criteria from the material efficiency aspects published for the EC :
- Quantity of materials used in product life cycle
- Environmental impact of materials over life cycle
- Recoverability, reusability, recyclability of materials
- Origin of materials
- Reparability and durability of a product and its components
Ease of Liberation
Previous attempts to develop metrics for recyclability, such as the IEC Technical Report 62635, did not take into account ease of liberation — i.e., the ease and effectiveness of separating components and materials in the condition needed for economically viable recovery. IEC 62635 assumes when a material is present, its recover-ability can be estimated with a generic percentage. However, in the real world where time is money, how the material is joined with others can strongly affect the ability to create a marketable resource.
The iNEMI metric awards more points for a design based on the ease with which someone in the recovery industry can perform the disassembly process. The most points are awarded for designs where parts and materials can be harvested with no damage to the components and materials. Because shredding produces lower-grade, and thus less valuable materials, fewer points are awarded in the metric. The worst-case scenario occurs with materials that cannot be liberated at all. Examples include fused designs, especially if there are hazardous substances in the design such as those found in lights and batteries.
Available Recovery Technology (AR*T)
iNEMI uses the term Recovery* (R*) to represent all methods of recovery (recycling, reuse, remanufacturing, repair, refurbishment). While the concept of AR*T is straightforward — can we recycle this device? — the answers and capabilities of the global market are not so simple. No two countries or regions recover e-waste in the same manner nor with the same results. The most important feature that distinguishes a country’s ability to collect, transform and return e-waste value to the market is the economic health of the country (i.e., does the country or region have funds to purchase electronic products and do they have enough discretionary funds to invest in recycling?). Next is the capability of the country or region to provide the services (repair, recovery, recycle). And, finally, proof of performance. The factors used to rank a country or region’s availability of recovery technology are:
- Regulatory and infrastructure (capability)
- Economic or development (investment potential)
- Electronics recycling rate (performance)
The output is a ranking score by country which is weighted based on the percentage of sales targeted for that country or region. Weighting the AR*T score based on the targeted market or region shows the designer which target market is improving the score (i.e., those countries where e-waste handling is performing well) and which are not (i.e., those countries with lagging or no e-waste handling capability.) This alone can inform the designer how the system, the circular economy, is impacted by a specific design and can spur action to develop e-waste handling capabilities in areas that are lacking.
About the R&R Metric Tool
The iNEMI Reuse and Recycling Metric (R&RM) tool is configured for simplified graphical input screens. A product criteria summary is provided in the overview worksheet. Three subsequent worksheets are provided to input product criteria relating to material choice, ease of liberation and available recycle technology. The input fields are listed along with graphical connectivity that allows the user to easily follow the input path, which is set according to the criteria’s category and query listing. The listing provides guidance on questions in the form of comment boxes, drop-down menu tables, and links to associated worksheets with supporting information. Results are summarized in the product criteria worksheet along with sparklines and percent of range scores for the three categories.
The tool is currently built as a spreadsheet using Microsoft Excel©. It provides data connectivity and interfacing throughout the workbook and allows for logical operations to check and provide feedback to the user depending on the question and other input within the worksheets.
For additional details about iNEMI’s Reuse and Recycling metric project, go to the end-of-project report page for project materials and a link to the recording of the end-of-project webinar, which includes a demonstration of the tool.
Conclusions, Recommendations & Next Steps
How does use of the R&R Metric improve performance of an interlocking system? Awareness. The only way to unlock the value of the entire system is to link it together. The single best place to influence the recyclability of a product is when the company is developing a product for market. Major electronics manufacturers are under pressure to lower the cost of recovery and the environmental impact caused by the e-waste they generate. The R&R Metric can help steer the correct path.
The work on the metric is a continuous process and to that end, a Phase 3 project will begin in 2019 to further research, develop and expand datasets to continue refining the tool. The team will also explore options for hosting and maintaining the tool to further enable broader deployment.
In the meantime, iNEMI is looking for beta testers to use the R&RM tool and give us feedback for improvements. Let us know if you’re interested in testing.
 BIO Intelligence Service (2011) Analysis of the key contributions to resource efficiency, Final Report - Prepared for European Commission, DG ENV.
 Material-efficiency Ecodesign Report and Module to the Methodology for the Ecodesign of Energy- related Products (MEErP); Final report to the European Commission - DG Enterprise and Industry, 5 December 2013.